Lectionary Commentaries for May 18, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 14:1-14

Karoline Lewis

This Sunday is the first of two Sundays from the 14th chapter of John.

Chapters 13-17 are best known as the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. Chapter 13 narrated the footwashing, the last meal shared between Jesus and his disciples, and the departure of Judas to the dark side (13:30). Chapter 14 picks up with direct words from Jesus to his disciples about his impending departure. They are words of comfort and hope, promise and plain speech, and little mincing of words as to what’s soon to take place.

It should seem just a little odd, or feel like an itching burr under our liturgical saddles, that a chapter in which Jesus offers his formal good-byes to the disciples is heard in the Sundays after Easter, when he is, well, for lack of a better term, back. Taking the literary context seriously when interpreting this text, however, gets at a critical theological claim for the Fourth Gospel, and particularly, what resurrection means for the Fourth Evangelist.

To be clear, I am not suggesting a sermon on reading the mind of the author of the Fourth Gospel and then telling your congregation his (probably his) interpretation of the resurrection. I am proposing, however, that the specificity with which this text speaks to the function and meaning of resurrection might frame how we imagine the promise of the resurrection beyond the seventh Sunday of Easter.

A brief Johannine theological summary: Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples in this discourse anticipate and assume the events that lie ahead: the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Each one of these realities is the result of the primary theological event in the Gospel of John, the incarnation. The disciples are going to be faced with the end of the incarnation, the end of Jesus’ presence on earth as God. Jesus needs them to know that there is more beyond the crucifixion which, for John, is the inevitable outcome of being human. That which becomes human must die.

At the same time, the resurrection and then the ascension are the next realities in store, for Jesus and for his believers. Note that even the resurrection is not the end all. The resurrection presumes that there is something even beyond itself, the ascension. The beginning of chapter 14, in fact, a good portion of the Farewell Discourse as a whole, describes not resurrected life but ascended life with God. Just as Jesus will ascend to the Father, so also will Jesus’ believers, where he goes to prepare an abiding place for them. It is from this particular theological perspective that we need to hear and interpret these introductory claims of the Farewell Discourse.

Indeed, where most of our parishioners have heard these opening verses of chapter 14 is at funerals or memorial services. The image of a great mansion in the sky for the recently departed deceased is evidently Jesus’ main purpose, or building project, if you will, to prepare to receive the loved one who has passed away.

This could actually be a very accurate depiction of this text if we remember that “dwelling place” is no “place” at all unless it means being in the intimate presence of God, or better yet, being at the bosom of the Father. Ascended life, toward which resurrection looks, means with God, with Jesus, sharing in their intimate bond and all that that intimacy entails. Where Jesus is, there we will be (14:3).

Like many or most of the characters in John’s Gospel, Thomas hears Jesus’ promise of place on the literal level. “Where are you going, Jesus? We need a map, a diagram, something like that to get us to the right location.” Into this misunderstanding Jesus offers one of the more well-known and ill-used “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The “I AM” statements in the Fourth Gospel make known Jesus as the source of life, abundant grace, and, seen in connection with the absolute “I AM” statements, signal the very presence of God.

Yet, removed from the conversation between Jesus and Thomas, and from the situation of Jesus’ last alone time with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, this particular “I AM” statement in the Gospel of John has turned into evidence for and proof of Jesus as the sole means of salvation, no matter how salvation seems to be defined.

The identifiable problem of being extracted from its narrative setting is one issue, but an additional glaring misappropriation of this “I AM” statement is it then stands as contradictory to every other “I AM” statement in the Fourth Gospel. “I AM the way, the truth, and the life” becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence. “No one comes to the Father except through me” rather than a word of promise becomes a declaration of prohibition.

If we keep reading beyond verse 6, we realize that the Father has already come, is already present, in the life and ministry of Jesus. “If you know me” is a condition of fact, “if you know me, and you do.” These are words of comfort, not condition, for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure. The misunderstanding continues with Philip’s request to see the Father, eliciting Jesus’ most unambiguous claims about his identity.

In this regard, the Farewell Discourse is no different than the other dialogues and discourses in the Gospel. There is always movement from misunderstanding to recognition of who Jesus is revealing himself to be, yet here, the stakes are higher. The Farewell Discourse is not only parting words for comfort, but clarification of what is to come, lest the disciples misinterpret the events of the Passion Narrative. This could easily be the case, given Martha’s mistaken perception of the soon-to-be resurrection of her brother (11:24-25).

What difference does this make for preaching? Sometimes preaching necessitates correction of interpretation history that has gone amiss. In this case, preaching this powerful “I AM” statement for its promise and not its discrimination will “save” many in that very moment. Truly.

Sometimes preaching must articulate the unabashed and absolute assurance of that which is unquestionably certain in a passage from scripture. And sometimes, preaching will have to state the unbelievable again. Because it is unbelievable. And because without naming a truth, it is all too easy to deny its presence. “You know me. I know you.” Again. “You know me. I know you.” And again.


First Reading

Commentary on Acts 7:55-60

Mikeal C. Parsons

Stephen is recognized in the church as the first or “proto-martyr.”

Before considering details in the lectionary text for the day, Acts 7:55-60, we would do well to ask: Why was Stephen martyred? For the contemporary Christian audience, it is crucial to observe that in his speech, Stephen is not pitting Christianity over against Judaism as though they were two distinct religions. The debate depicted by Luke in Acts 6-7 is an intra-Jewish struggle over identity and the continuing role of Temple and Law; to label it otherwise is anachronistic.

In his speech, then, the Lukan Stephen employs a rhetorical device known as an encomium/invective synkrisis (or comparison) in which Stephen draws on Israel’s Scriptures and Story for both positive and negative examples in order to refute the charges that the Christian “Way” represents a radical departure from the worship of and covenant with Israel’s God. Stephen needed to supply a competing version of the story that was coherent and compelling. And so he does: throughout their shared history, Stephen counters, exemplars who followed God’s way can be found.

There are in Stephen’s version of Israel’s history two Jewish groups: those who accept God’s message and messengers and those who reject them. The comparison Stephen develops in Acts 7 aligns Stephen and the church with Abraham, Joseph, the prophets, and Jesus. His opponents are aligned with the Egyptians, Joseph’s brothers, the rebellious in the wilderness who disobeyed Moses, and the ancestors who killed the prophets. For Luke, rather than rejecting God’s house or God’s law, the followers of the Way are in line with the faithful in Jewish history who have sought to keep covenant with God. Stephen’s words enrage his interlocutors, and they put him to death by stoning. Stephen thus becomes the first martyr of the Church.1

Much has been made of the meaning of Stephen’s name (“crown”) with regard to his martyrdom.2 The Venerable Bede’s comments are typical: “It was fitting that in the first martyr he should confirm what he deigned to promise to all those handed over [to martyrdom] for the sake of his name” (Commentary on Acts 6:10). An 18th century St. Stephen’s Day anthem proclaims:

First of martyrs, thou whose name

Doth thy golden crown proclaim

… First like him in dying hour

Witness to almighty power;

First to follow where he trod

Through the deep Red Sea of blood;

First, but in thy footsteps press

Saints and martyrs numberless.3

Stephen remains an important figure in the history of the church, as a quick survey of the reception history of several key points in Acts 7:55-60 demonstrates.

Several early interpreters commented on the fact that Stephen sees Christ standing, rather than sitting, at the right hand of God (7:55, 56). Ambrose observed: “Jesus stood as a helpmate; he stood as if anxious to help Stephen, his athlete, in the struggle. He stood as though ready to crown his martyr. Let him then stand for you that you may not fear him sitting, for he sits when he judges” (Letter 59; cf. Augustine, “Sermon: On the Birthday of St. Stephen,” Works of St. Augustine III/9 126-27). Elsewhere Ambrose puts the point more succinctly: “He sits as Judge of the quick and the dead; he stands as his people’s Advocate” (De fide iii.17).

John Calvin, on the other hand, deems the discussion regarding the differences between Christ sitting (in judgment) or standing (as here, in advocacy) as “too subtle”: whether “Christ is said to sit or stand at the right hand of God the Father … the plain meaning is this, that Christ hath all power given to him” (Commentary on Acts 7:54-58; 239).

Despite the hostile violence wrought against him, Stephen prays for his enemies. Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) greatly admired and often appealed to the example of Saint Stephen in his writings.4 His son-in-law and first biographer, William Roper, recorded these words by More after he was tried in Westminster Hall on July 1, 1535, and condemned to die. According to Roper, More found the presence of Saul (Paul) at Stephen’s death (7:58; 8:1) to be a poignant, yet hopeful detail :

More have I not to say (my Lords) but like as the blessed Apostle St. Paul, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, was present, and consented to the death of St. Stephen, and kept their clothes that stoned him to death, and yet be they now both twain holy saints in heaven, and shall continue their friends for ever, so I verily trust and shall therefore right heartily pray, that though your Lordships have now in earth been judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation (William Roper, The Life of St. Thomas More, paragraph 5-7).

For Søren Kierkegaard, the words of forgiveness uttered by Stephen explained one of the last details of the text: “he fell asleep” (7:60b). When he had said this, he fell asleep. What was it he said? He said: Father, do not hold this sin against them. This, then, is the formula — then one falls asleep; as we tell a child to say his prayer aloud and go to sleep — so he went to sleep, he went to sleep saying this. He prayed for them. He had prayed for himself again and again; his whole life to the very end, his sufferings, were praying for himself.

Now there is only a moment left, a minute: he prays for his enemies … we learn from him — to pray for ourselves, to pray for our enemies — and then to fall asleep … For 1,800 years he has been famous and eulogized; but he cares nothing about that — he sleeps (Journals and Papers 4.329-30).

Material adapted from The Acts of the Apostles. Paideia Commentary Series. Eds. Mikeal C. Parsons and Charles H. Talbert. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic (a division of Baker Publishing Group), 2008. Used by permission.


Notes:

The preceding two paragraphs are based on Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 107-08. Used with permission.

The following material is based on research done for Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons, The Acts of the Apostles Through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell Commentaries; Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, forthcoming).

Cited in David L. Jeffrey, ed., “Stephen,” A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 735.

J. R Cavanaugh, “The Saint Stephen Motif in Saint Thomas More’s Thought,” Moreana 8 (1965): 59-66.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

J. Clinton McCann, Jr.

Psalm 31, along with Psalms 22 and 69, is among the longest and most impressive of the genre known variously as lament, complaint, protest, and/or prayer for help.

Not coincidentally, these three psalms figure prominently in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion (see below). Like Psalm 22 in particular, Psalm 31 has a noticeable double intensity — that is, the basic elements of complaint, petition, and expression of trust/praise recur in what Konrad Schaefer describes as a “first movement” (verses 1-8) and a “second movement” (verses 9-22), in which the basic elements match or parallel each other.1 For instance, in today’s lection, verse 5 parallels verse 15. John Goldingay notices the same structural feature, aptly entitling his treatment of Psalm 31, “When a Prayer Needs to be Prayed Twice.”2

As in all the laments (except Psalm 88), expressions of trust/praise like verses 5 and 15 are present; but what is distinctive about Psalm 31 is that such expressions not only begin and conclude the psalm (verses 1a, 19-24), but also appear throughout it (verses 3a, 4b-8, 14-15a). In this regard, Psalm 31 is similar to Psalm 116, a psalm of thanksgiving that is pervaded by expressions of trust (see essay on Psalm 116:1-4, 12-29, Third Sunday of Easter).

The opening line sets the tone of trust, employing one of the most important words in the Psalter — “refuge.” It occurs first in Psalm 2:12, and then it recurs regularly in the prayers that dominate Books I-II (Psalms 1-72; see v. 19; 5:11; 7:1; 11:1; 14:6; 16:1; and 71:1-3, which is very similar to 31:1-3). To “seek refuge” or “take refuge” (CEB) in God means to entrust life and future to God in the midst of trouble, turmoil, and pervasive opposition, all of which are present in Psalm 31 (see especially verses 4, 7-13, 18, 20-22) and in all the other psalmic prayers as well.

For this reason, verse 1a serves as an accurate and admirable summary of the faith of the psalmists throughout the Psalter — that is, they always live in fundamental dependence upon God, not only trusting that God can and will help, but also inviting others to trust and find hope in God (verses 23-24).

The series of synonyms for “refuge” solidifies the point — “rock of refuge” (verse 2; the Hebrew word translated “refuge” is different than in verses 1, 19); “strong fortress”/”fortress” (verses 2-3); “rock” (verse 3; again, a different Hebrew word than “rock” in verse 2). God can be trusted to protect and preserve.

Similarly, the three virtually synonymous verbs — “deliver” (verse 1), “rescue” (verse 2), and “save” (verse 3) — reinforce the point. The phrases “in your righteousness” (verse 1) and “for your name’s sake” (verse 3) invite attention to the character of God. God works to give life, because this activity communicates essentially who God is.

In this regard, it is significant that the Hebrew word hesed, “steadfast love,” becomes a keyword in the psalm, although it occurs only once in today’s lection (verse 16; see verses 7, 21). Rather uniquely, but helpfully, Goldingay translates hesed as “commitment.”3 The psalmists always trust that God is committed to them, and they in turn commit their lives to God.

Verse 5 is one of the clearest affirmations in the Psalter of the psalmists’ commitment to God: “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” or “I entrust my spirit into your hands” (CEB), or in more of a paraphrase, “I turn my life over to you.” The verb translated “commit”/”entrust” is interesting. In other conjugations and contexts, it is used for passing muster on troops and for appointing military officials.

Given this possible nuance, and given the military metaphor in verses 2-3 (“fortress”) and the pervasive opposition confronting the psalmist (verses 7-8, 11, 13, 15, 18, 20), the choice of words suggests that the psalmist’s battle-strategy is to trust God! What a difference it would make if we, as individuals and groups, “fought back” by trusting God instead of lashing out at enemies!

The word “hand” connotes power; and it links verse 5 to verse 15: “My times are in your hand,” or “My future is in your hands” (CEB). The “hand” or power of God is contrasted with “the hand of the enemy” (verse 8; see 15). The bad news is that the power of the opposition to the psalmist (and to God’s will for life) is real and must be endured.

The good news is that God’s power is greater and will ultimately prevail. Such conviction and commitment — such entrusting of self, life, and future to God — empowers the psalmist to resist and endure, and even to invite others to love God, to have courage, and to have hope (verses 23-24). We might even call it resurrection-power, which makes Psalm 31 appropriate for the season of Easter.

Not surprisingly, according to Luke 23:46, Jesus repeats Psalm 31:5a from the cross, in the midst of powerful and pervasive opposition (the kind of opposition described in 31:13 as “terror all around” — see this phrase also in Jeremiah 20:3, 10, which makes it clear that the prophets, along with the psalmists and Jesus, encountered such opposition). Jesus steadfastly resisted the evil forces arrayed against him, but he did not resist violently. Jesus “fought back” by entrusting life and future to God, and so his resistance took the form of love and forgiveness, grounded in the sure and certain hope of resurrection.

Liturgically, the use of Psalm 31 during both Holy Week (Palm/Passion Sunday and Holy Saturday, Years ABC) and the Easter season invites us to hold together cross and resurrection (see the essay on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Resurrection of Our Lord). A persistent temptation is to separate them, as if resurrection-people have put the cross behind them.

Jesus’ invitation, then and now, is to “take up [the] … cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34, CEB). In a world full of powerful forces that oppose God’s will for life, the resurrection-power to resist and endure begins, as it did for the psalmist and Jesus, with the simple but profound commitment, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”


Notes:

Konrad Schaefer, Psalms (Berit Olam; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 76.

John Goldingay, Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41 (Baker Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 434.

Ibid., 434-436.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10

Karl Jacobson

Our reading from 1 Peter for this week is organized around a pastiche of Old Testament texts. 

Through allusion and quotation a structure, a means for understanding who Christ Jesus is, and who we are in Christian community, is set up.

1. Allusion. “You have tasted that the Lord is good,” is a clear allusion to Psalm 34:8, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”

2. Quotation. “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious,” is a somewhat indirect quotation of Isaiah 28:16, “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’”

3. Quotation. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” quotes Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

4. Quotation. “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall,” is set up as a quotation, but the citation is not biblical.

5. Allusion. “Proclaim the mighty acts,” alludes to the recurring Old Testament theme of remembering what God has done for Israel — most notably in the exodus (cf. Psalms 77, 78, 105) — by which God made Israel God’s chosen people.

6. Quotation. Finally, 2:10 is a quotation of Hosea 2:23 “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Of the nine verses that make up our reading for this week, six of them are either alluding to or directly quoting Scripture. All of this textual dependence serves a particular purpose, defining the Christian community.

Again, as in the first two readings from 1 Peter, there is new born language. The new born believer will hunger for the Lord. The stone which the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone, the living stone, upon which the Christian (and the church) is built. Christ’s church is built through the proclamation of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s past, acts which have traction now.

This is brought home in the final quotation, from Hosea, which is all about God’s choosing (re-choosing really) of God’s people. 1 Peter adopts the language of “you are God’s people,” and applies it to the church, which is crafted into “a spiritual house … a holy priesthood” (2:5), a ”chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you” (2:9). Notice the tightly woven construction of identity taking place here.

By the proclamation of God’s mighty acts, the church — God’s people — is formed. In the church, God’s mighty acts are then proclaimed. This is what God does, calls the church into being, to proclaim Christ, and so be built up into a house of spiritual stones. And there, to proclaim the mighty acts of God.

To quote again from the Lutheran Study Bible’s introduction to 1 Peter:

First Peter reflects the rapid expansion of the early church in Asia Minor. The writer explores issues of community, mission, and suffering — issues these young faith communities may have been facing.”

The four readings from 1 Peter, of which this reading is the culmination, contain the essential, creative, identity-forming language of faith. This language of faith is proclaimed, spoken by the author of 1 Peter, to establish, to shape, and to grow the early Christian community. For 1 Peter 2, this is the ultimate function and purpose of (dare one say) any and every Christian community — to be known into being by Christ, and to be known for its proclamation of him. Built up by the word of Christ, the Christian (individual and community) bears the word of Christ.

The bulk of 1 Peter, and in particular the four readings we have had, may be summed up, in brief: As Christ is, so is the Christian. As the church this is our only calling, and our only hope.